2017: The Renaissance Man Challenge

blog-picsThe New Year is almost upon us. Many (including myself) are going to start diets or go the gym as a resolution. That’s great, of course. Always good to be fit. But what about getting the Brain to hit the gym too?  Well, I have spent some time putting together a list of semi-resolutions for 2017. I call it the Renaissance Man Challenge.

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Hildegard von Bingen and Leonardo da Vinci, two of the most famous polymaths in history

Also known as a polymath, a Renaissance Man is a person who excels in the study and appreciation of many different subjects. They have a thirst for knowledge and a love of learning. For example, Hildegard von Bingen, a medieval German nun. She was well educated in and pioneered music, philosophy, writing, medicine and several sciences. There is also Leonardo da Vinci, who is famous for his work in subjects such as art, science, invention, astronomy, architecture and many others. Seriously, many others. Of course, we can’t all be Hildegards and Leonardos. But then again, why not? We may not be able to pioneer subjects, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn them and love them.

So, just for fun, I have composed a list of twenty five activities specifically designed to either find or develop new interests in diverse subjects. Some are quick and easy. Some will last a few months. Some take all year. I suggest picking at least three. Time to become a polymath!

Renaissance Man Challenge 2017

1.) Read one classic novel longer than 500 pages or three shorter classics. The only rule? Make sure they are all books you have never read before! Some great authors of long books are Dickens, Hugo, Dumas and Tolstoy.

2.) Become familiar with one of the main historical eras of music. For Western music, those are the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Romantic. With YouTube and the rest of the internet, it is easy to listen and learn about these eras!

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Japanese art is very beautiful and interesting to study

3.) Become familiar with the works and artists of one art period from any part of the world. You can choose a Western movement like Rococo or Renaissance or an Eastern movement, like the Tang Dynasty or Heian Period. There are so many books, websites and documentaries out there waiting for you.

4.) Take up a handcraft, such as knitting, wood-burning, sculpting, leather-work or jewelry making. There is nothing like being able to make something with your own hands. And if you work hard enough at it, you can even end up selling your work and making a few extra dollars!

5.) Read a book in a new language. Any difficulty or length, as long as you learn enough of the language to understand it.

6.) Read a book of the folk takes or mythology of a different culture. Preferably of another continent, so that you get to learn about a history and culture that is different than your own. Practically every culture has unique stories you can read. Some suggestions: Greek, Egyptian, Japanese, Hawaiian, Native American, Celtic, or Norse.

7.) Write a short story, at least 20-30k words. Write it about something you dreamed or always wanted to do. Write characters based on your friends, family or coworkers. Tip: You can kill off the characters based on people who drive you crazy!

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La bohème is an excellent place to start in the world of opera

8.) Watch five operas and/or ballets. Get in touch with the entertainments of history!

9.) Write an essay about the images, themes or characters of one of your favorite movies. This is a really cool exercise, as it helps you to understand exactly what it is you love in a story.

10.) Pick one Shakespeare play and hyper focus on it. Read the play, analyze the themes, characters and messages. Watch every filmed version of it you can find and discover in what ways you like the interpretations and what ways you don’t. It’s much better to do this with a tragedy than a comedy, and preferably one of his Big Four: Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear or Othello. These plays are exceptionally rich and you can practically feel your brain expanding as you study them.

11.) Learn about something new using only books, no internet. A period of History is especially good for this entry.

12.) Try a different country’s cuisine for one week. The more different from your usual, the better!

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Tolkien’s Tengwar alphabet is very elegant and is surprisingly easy to learn

13.) Learn to write one calligraphic script. Or learn to write with a new alphabet like Greek, Cyrillic, Chinese or even Elvish!

14.) Read an epic poem or a ballad. Ballads and epics can be some of the most exciting and moving forms of literature. A few of my favorites are the Illiad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Ballad of the White Horse, and the Ballad of Reading Gaol.

15.) Watch at least one historical or scientific documentary every month.

16.) Read three Greek Dramas, tragic or comedic. They are some of the finest and oldest dramas that the world possesses, and are really worth a read.

17.) Learn about the history of the city or town in which you live. Sometimes it’s more interesting than you think it is!

18.) Once a month, try making a food that you have never had before. If you have to go to a special store for the ingredients, that’s a good sign! And maybe invite friends over to try it with you. If you can get them in on it, you can have a multi-cultural potluck!

19.) Learn to read Music. This is an incredible thing to do. When you can read music, it’s like knowing another language.

20.) Read or watch three things geared towards a demographic to which you do not belong. For instance, read a Jane Austen novel if you’re a dude. Watch an old John Wayne Western if you’re a girly girl. Read a children’s’ book series. And always look for the artistic value. You might find you have interests you never thought you had!

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La donna è mobile is a fun and catchy aria to sing with

21.) Teach yourself to sing a classical aria or an art song. Switch up your commute sing-a-longs from Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift to Verdi and Mozart. And YouTube has orchestral backing tracks for countless operatic hits, so Classy Karaoke is possible!

22.) Memorize a poem at least a page long. It can be a whole poem, or part of one. Just push your memory to the maximum!

23.) Pick a science that interests you. Animal, astronomy, anatomy, physics, anything. Study it. Don’t just read about it a little. Dive into it, teaching yourself as best as you can. Be that cool person who knows those random facts!

24.) Find a type of math you were always really bad at and learn it all over again. Go, see, and conquer! Make Geometry and Calculus fear your name!

25.) Study the architecture of certain era or culture, historical or modern. It’s astounding how much artistry can be put into buildings.

You’ll have to forgive me that a lot of these are pretty Western-centric. I know unfortunately little about Eastern Culture. But that’s one of the things I’m planning to change this year! I’m picking Numbers 6 and 13 on my list, and reading about Japanese folklore and how to write some Japanese calligraphy. I’m also planning on 18! I want to try some of the tasty dishes that the world has to offer. And I’ve been meaning to read The Count of Monte Cristo, so I’ll be doing Number 1 as well.

Any other Hildegards and Leonardos out there to give this a try?

Classy Recipes: Smoking Becket

Blog pics.pngMerry Christmas, everyone! Let’s celebrate the holiday the Victorian way with a bowl of Smoking Bishop: the spicy, fruity beverage drunk by Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Smoking Bishop is a is a spiced wine punch, served hot and flavored with oranges. It is a traditional drink of England and was very popular in the Victorian Era as a winter (and especially Christmas) drink. It is famously mentioned in Charles Dickens’ aforementioned book, when Scrooge is a changed man. He offers Bob Cratchit his help and a fortifying drink of the season: Smoking Bishop.

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Henry II and Thomas Becket

Honestly though, there are lots of articles about Smoking Bishop in the blog world. You could go anywhere to get those recipes. So I decided I should come up with a twist on the classic Christmas beverage: Smoking Becket! It is inspired by the famous English saint, Thomas Becket, the 12th Century Archbishop of Canterbury who defied King Henry II. His feast day for Catholics and Anglicans and the day of his death is on December 29th , so perhaps, save a glass for a toast next Thursday!

This drink is made with spices, bold like Becket himself. And because the saint met a martyr’s death, the punch is uniquely flavored with Blood Oranges rather than the traditional Valencia or Seville varieties. Smoking Becket is served hot and is perfect for winter-time. It is a strong, flavorful and rich beverage that warms the drinker to the toes with robust and exotic flavors of citrus and spices.

Smoking Becket (Spiced Blood Orange Punch)

blog-picsIngredients:

Six small blood oranges
One Lemon
About 36 Whole Dried Cloves

2 ½ cups (600 ml) of Water
1 ½ cup (350 ml) of Port
1 ½ (350 ml) Fruit Wine (I used Manischewitz Blackberry Wine)
1 tsp (5 ml) fresh grated ginger (or ginger paste)
1 tsp (5 ml) allspice
2 cinnamon sticks
1 tsp (5 ml) Anise Extract (optional)
1 cup (225 ml) unbleached cane sugar

1 ½ (350 ml) more cups of Port (Three cups in whole recipe)
4-6 cups (950-1400 ml) medium bodied red wine (I used Merlot)

Instructions:
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1.) Preheat oven to 325°F (About 165°C)

2.) Stud the blood oranges and lemon with cloves, five or six in each. To do this, make a small incision in the peel with a knife and stick the clove in, making a criss-cross incision if the peel is very thick. Place the studded fruits in a baking dish and roast in the oven for one hour.

blog-pics3.) While the oranges are baking, heat the water, the fruit wine and half the port to boiling. Add ginger (or ginger paste), cinnamon sticks and allspice. (You can add dashes of ginger powder and ground cinnamon if you like it spicier). Also add the Anise extract, if desired. Stir in the sugar and simmer, allowing it to steep, whisking occasionally. It should be a little bit thicker, reddish brown and very fragrant.

blog-pics4.) Take the oranges and lemon out of the oven. Half them and squeeze the juices into a cup (careful, they will be hot!) and then add the juice to the spice syrup. Make sure to remove the seeds.

5.) Add the remaining port and the wine to taste. Start with four cups of red wine, but if the flavor is still too strong, you can add more wine or even water. Whisk the punch thoroughly and heat it until it is at a nice warm temperature for drinking. Preferably smoking hot!blog-pics

You can garnish each glass of Smoking Becket with a slice of Blood Orange and a cinnamon stick, if desired. This recipe makes almost a gallon, enough for a nice hefty punch bowl and maybe a little extra to help you recover after cooking for the Christmas party!

 

This recipe is very flexible. If you want to use a favorite fruit wine, a special port, a different red, more orange, or less spice, you can! It’s really a made to order drink.

If you like my recipe and want to share it, please do! But do make sure to tell everyone where you got it from and link back to my post.

(To learn more about Thomas Becket, you can visit this link: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Thomas-Becket. You could also read T.S. Elliot’s fantastic play Murder in the Cathedral, or watch the two great actors Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole in the 1964 film Becket. While highly dramatized and not entirely true to the real story, the film is marvelous.)

Classy Days in History: Happy 531st Birthday, Katherine of Aragon

There are important days in history. There are sad days in history. There are just plain cool days in history. But this is Mind Vitamins, so when I mark a day, it’s going to be because it is classy. Today is the birthday of several historically classy people, but my favorite one shall take precedence.

December 16th, 1485

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Katherine in her youth

Let us give a large slice of Historical Birthday Cake to a most impressive woman: Katherine of Aragon, Queen of England and first wife of Henry VIII. I confess that I am a bit of a fangirl for Queen Katherine, a historical hero of strong womanhood. While usually remembered as simply being the poor sap who got booted by Anne Boleyn, she was so much more.

In a time when ideal womanhood consisted of being blonde and shutting up, Queen Katherine stood apart. As the daughter of the powerful, though definitely controversial, Queen Isabella of Spain, Katherine had a strong female role model from the beginning. Differing from many of the European nobility of the day, she and her three sisters received just as excellent an education as their brother, John. From her childhood, Katherine was thoroughly educated in arithmetic, literature, philosophy, law, theology and more alongside the all of the domestic skills women learned in those days. Besides her native Spanish, she achieved mastery over French, Latin, Greek and eventually English. She was almost certainly one of the most educated and impressive people, especially women, in Europe at the time. Even without her title and position as a Princess of Spain, she was a fit spouse for a king.

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Katherine as Queen of England

At first, Katherine was married to Henry VIII’s older brother, Arthur. When Arthur died of an illness, they decided Katherine should marry Henry, next in line for the throne. This arrangement was a bit irregular, but Katherine gave her word that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated, so they were able to receive a special dispensation to marry from the Pope.

Katherine proved to be an excellent queen. She was a patron of education and the arts, and was known for her charity to the poor and her mercy to the condemned. The English people adored her. Whenever her husband crossed metaphorical swords with her father, the King of Spain, she gave her allegiance to her husband and her new country of England. Several times, she even performed her husband’s duties for him. She once acted as regent for six months when Henry was in France. During this time, a very important battle took place, and rather than let down the troops, Katherine rode to the battlefield while pregnant and in full armor. There, she gave them a reportedly superlative and memorable speech, which spurred them to a great victory.

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Queen Katherine (detail from The Great Matterby  Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

Then, in came the event for which Katherine was sadly best known: the infamous divorce. As a woman, I find complaining needlessly about sexism to be a sign of weakness. However, the treatment Katherine of Aragon received is a truly disgusting testament to the misogyny of the Tudor Era. Her protests of her royal validity meant nothing to the court of Henry VIII. Discounting all of her intelligence, accomplishments, virtue, and the decision of the church on the validity of her marriage, she was cast aside for the simple reason that she could not produce a male heir. Henry, now self-proclaimed leader of the English Church, declared that their marriage had never been valid. This proclamation now made the great Queen Katherine little more than a mistress and her daughter, Mary, a bastard. To make matters more humiliating, Katherine’s replacement would be Anne Boleyn, her lady in waiting:  inferior in rank, education and every other way besides.

But it was done. How he could do this to a woman who had done so much for him is beyond comprehension, but Henry cast Katherine aside and took her daughter away from her. After all of the rejection and humiliation, she was exiled to an isolated home in the English countryside. She was offered better treatment and the ability to see her daughter Mary if only she would acknowledge Anne Boleyn as rightful Queen. But the truth and her dignity was more important to Katherine than her own comfort, and she never conceded her title and status as long as she lived. She died in banishment without any of her family. She had every reason to hate Henry and never wish to see or speak to him again. No one would have thought any less of her if it had been so. But, being a devout Catholic, Katherine chose to be “the bigger man” as it were and forgive him. This, her final letter to Henry, is witness to the nobility of her heart.

My most dear lord, king and husband,
The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you have cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles. For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for. Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.
Katharine the Quene.

For a woman of such strong and bold character, this letter is surprisingly gentle. But all of the love, forgiveness and concern she expressed for Henry were lost on him. Both he and his new Queen, Anne Boleyn, were reported to have openly and callously celebrated her death and Henry would not give Katherine any funerary honors more than was due to a “Princess Dowager”, referring to her marriage to his brother Arthur.

It would have appeared that Katherine would be wronged forever. However, history has happily justified her. Although she was stripped of the title of Queen in life, in the 19th century, her grave was re-marked by the will of the people to read “Katharine, Queen of England” in golden letters. A historical jab if ever I heard one. And well-deserved. Katherine of Aragon was a pillar of strength and dignity. She was and is truly an inspirational figure of history. She was loved by her people and respected by all and is represented in books, plays and cinema almost always with grace and majesty. Even her enemy, Thomas Cromwell could not help but admire her, and said of her: “If not for her sex, she could have defied all the heroes of History.”

Happy Birthday, Queen Katherine! You will be remembered forever.

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Katherine’s grave at Peterborough Cathedral adorned with pomegranates, a symbol of power and sovereignty

Featured picture: Calendar by Johannes von Gmunden, 1496